Sunday, July 19, 2009

The AP Anonymity Game -- UPDATED

See update at end of post:

By Bradley J. Fikes

Anonymous sourcing is generally looked down on in the journalism world, for good reason. The readers have no way of judging the source's credibility, whether he or she has an ax to grind or even whether the source exists. (See: Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, etc.).

So most journalistic organizations, including the Associated Press, have policies that strictly limit the use of anonymous sources. But the policies are no good if they're not enforced, and AP Watch has collected a few examples of where AP stories have violated its own policy.

For example, take this July 17 AP story on a union proposal to use card-check voting for whether to organize at workplaces. The story says:

"A Democratic official familiar with compromise talks on a bill to make forming unions easier said union leaders are willing to drop the politically volatile card check plan to win over wavering Senate Democrats.

"The official spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are still ongoing."

The Associated Press Managing Editors has issued a statement on the proper use of anonymous sources. Among other things, the policy states:

The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient — when material comes from an authoritative figure whose detail makes it clear and certain that the information is accurate.

We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it's relevant, we must describe the source's motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible.

The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source's credibility; simply quoting "a source" is not allowed. We should be as descriptive as possible: "according to top White House aides" or "a senior official in the British Foreign Office." The description of a source must never be altered without consulting the reporter.

Now contrast the constraints of that statement on anonymous source use with what the reporter actually did with the card-check story. The ID as "a Democratic official familiar with compromise talks," doesn't give any guidance.

A Democratic official could be just about anyone with a post in the party. We're not told if the official is in Congress, or works for congressional staff. In short, we're not told why the source is credible. We're also not told about the source's motives for disclosing information. Apparently, the reporter doesn't think that's relevant.

The AP statement gives examples of what constitutes credibility, such as "top White House aides" or a "senior official in the British Foreign Office." These give you some idea of how the official is in a position to know. Merely being a Democratic official gives you no such idea.

And close reading shows that the story's flat assertion is not as firmly based as the introduction states. Further down in the story, we learn that the outcome is not certain because "negotiations are still ongoing."

Even further down, another anonymous source, identified only as a "labor official", undermines the first anonymous claim:

And another labor official who requested anonymity stressed that card check is not completely off the table and that no deal would be final until labor leaders check with affiliates to make sure they are on board.

So "card check is not completely off the table." So where is it? Dangling over the edge? Levitating above the table? This qualification undermines the story's lede, but it is buried near the end.

And in this instance, the story doesn't even say why the labor official requested anonymity, despite the AP statement's requirement that the reason be disclosed.

Let's recap what we know from this AP story: One anonymous source says the unions have agreed to drop card check, but negotiations are still ongoing and there is no deal as of yet. And another anonymous source says the labor unions haven't gotten the approval of their affiliates.

After putting all the information together, the result is nothing more than unverified gossip.

In politics, special interest groups try to use the media all the time to send up trial balloons of controversial ideas. The leakers don't want their names associated with the idea, so they speak anonymously. It benefits both parties: the leaker gets the trial balloon out, and the reporter gets the story. But the public is being manipulated.

We have to trust the reporter this is not happening with this story. But such trust is hard to give when the reporter violates his news organization's own policy.

This is far from an isolated case. AP stories routinely violate the policy described above. You can even make a game of it: In Google News, type in "source: AP anonymity" (without the quote marks). You can also use the word anonymous or the text string in quotes: "declined to be identified".

You'll find you'll find all sorts of stories using anonymity. Here are three recent examples found in a few minutes of playing the AP Anonymity Game:

-- Here's a story about a board meeting by commercial lender CIT Group. The single anonymous source is characterized only as "a person briefed on the talks." We have no information on how this person is in a position to know.

-- Here's a story about an investigation into Obama's former auto czar, Steve Rattner. The sole anonymous source is described as a "person familiar with a New York investigation into the state's public pension fund." Likewise, we are not given a clue as to what kind of position this person has that would provide that familiarity.

-- And here's one about Notre Dame and Army supposedly playing at Yankee Stadium next year. This is attributed to "a person familiar with the arrangement," which tells us absolutely nothing at all. How do we readers know this source has access to this information? Because, says the reporter, the source is familiar with the arrangement!

How can the Associated Press be trusted for accuracy when its reporters routinely violate their own employer's policy, established to ensure accuracy?

UPDATE: See my AP Watch colleague Tom Blumer's take on the story at BizzyBlog. Blumer finds stuff I missed. For example, the story describes business groups as "railing" against card check -- a blatantly loaded word. The whole story is written from the viewpoint that card check is a good thing labor may have to give up. There is not a hint that there may be legitimate reasons to oppose card check.


DISCLAIMER: This post represents the opinion of author Bradley J. Fikes, and not necessarily that of his employer, the North County Times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Real Faux News

If you've noticed a lot of Associated Press articles look contrived, stretching to make a point without the evidence, or even in contradiction of the evidence, there's a good reason for that. The AP's management has decided that speaking truth to power, attitude and flashiness will make it relevant in the Internet age. (More about that later in this article).

When you try to fit facts into that Procrustean bed, the truth is going to get stretched or amputated as reporters try to make 2+2 equal 5. Like, for instance, this article in AP's "Fact Check" file, found through Best of the Web.

The facts allegedly checked are Republican criticisms of the Obama stimulus bill. It leads off with a whopper of a bogus "fact check" against the senior Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica.:

MICA SAID: Transportation money is slow to get out because of "red tape" slowing things down.

THE FACTS: Republicans are correct that only a small percentage of the $48 billion in transportation money has been spent. But red tape is a red herring. In fact, stimulus projects have to be ready to begin quickly. Projects that have yet to clear permitting, environmental review or other bureaucratic hurdles won't get funded because they won't meet the law's deadlines.

If "permitting, environmental review or other bureaucratic hurdles" are not red tape, then nothing is.

That faux-clever distortion to be expected when a news organization forces facts into a template. The reporters aren't the only ones to blame, they are following orders from AP's management.

Much of the blame goes to the AP's Washington bureau chief, Ron Fournier, who fancies himself an opinion leader, shaping how America sees the world. Fournier left AP a few years ago for a failed political venture called, then pathetically crawled back to AP still retaining his desire to make the news, not report it. A story in Politico neatly sums up what Fournier is doing.

And then there is Fournier's boss, executive editor Kathleen Carroll, summing up the shallowness of the new AP by saying in another Politico story -- I am not making this up --“It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

“We probably weren’t as boring as you thought we were,” Carroll said when asked about the new style, adding that the AP has made “enormous changes” since she became editor in 2002. “Don’t make us decrepit or dull when we’re not."

It's always reassuring to read about a journalist who's got higher priorities than that boring old accuracy stuff.

P.S. -- Read my colleague Tom Blumer's exquisite takedown of a flawed AP economics story, showing precisely where the numbers are mistaken or out of context.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Announcing AP Watch

The Associated Press is by far the dominant news service for newspapers and other journalism outfits across the country. However, its articles are frequently marred by sloppy errors, poor logic and blatant misinformation. This is a disservice to readers, who get inaccurate information, and to the newspapers, that pay good money for what are supposed to be accurate stories.

That's the reason for AP Watch, a project to monitor and correct major AP errors, especially those that negate the premise of the story. We're concentrating on business and science, but may delve into other fields.

AP Watch is nonideological; we welcome contributions from those of all political persuasions. The founders of this site are Tom Blumer of Bizzyblog and Bradley J. Fikes, a business reporter . The founders have our own personal political beliefs; conservative for Blumer and Libertarian for Fikes. (Disclaimer: Fikes' views are not necessarily representative of his employer, the North County Times).

But we're not focusing on media bias per se here. Plenty of sites do such monitoring. We are specifically tackling blatant errors by the Associated Press. To our knowledge, no one else is doing that.

We're looking for errors such as that in a recent AP article on the growth of green jobs, derived from a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The article repeated without any skepticism Pew's nonsensical claim that jobs in the overall economy grew by just 3.7 percent over the entire decade of 1998 to 2007. That would have been nearly stagnant growth during a decade encompassing two booms and one mild recession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs total job growth during that period at 11.1 percent, a much more believable number.

The point of the flawed number is that it makes the growth in green jobs during that period, of 9.1 percent, look far better than growth in the overall economy. This is the premise of Pew's report. It uses a method designed to better track additions of jobs at the micro-level than conventional statistics. However, when the method is applied to the total economy, it yields a nonsensical answer. The source, says Pew, is the “National Establishment Time Series (NETS) Database and data from the Cleantech Group LLC.”

If the NETS number is true, then all the other state and federal job growth numbers are false. This would be a major discovery worth follow-up stories. And to be consistent, AP should use the NETS number for all future job stories and not the BLS number. Of course, AP hasn't done so. The NETS number wasn't intended to track overall job growth, and the Cleantech data is from a company focusing on the environmental industry.

When confronted with the error, Pew stonewalled. And as far as we know, the Associated Press has not acknowledged the error.

Read the whole sorry story at Bizzyblog.

We don't know why the AP team of Chris Kahn, Sandy Shore and Tali Arbel swallowed such a nonsensical result. But good reporters should be able to spot such obviously wrong numbers and not be fooled by them. And if the AP team didn't, then the AP editors should be able to do so. That is, if the AP has good editors.

It's no secret that the Associated Press is having trouble making ends meet, as is the case with most journalistic outfits. So some reductions may be inevitable. But if the AP is cutting quality and substituting quantity, lowering standards and trying to get by on media hype, then we are all poorly served.

AP is trying to jazz up its coverage with more analysis pieces that purport to cut through the clutter, and more opinionated political reporting. We suggest AP's time would be better spent making sure its stories are accurate. That would also please editors, who would prefer dependably accurate meat-and-potatoes coverage to flashy but untrustworthy glitz.

With public trust in the MSM notoriously low, the survival of journalism depends on rebuilding that trust. And the best way to start is by focusing on accuracy. Without trust, nothing else is possible. A reformed Associated Press could inspire more trust, and be a model for other news organizations. That is our main hope.

We invite comments and suggestions. For now, biz (at) is the best place to send suggestions.